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Washington U Team Leads Investigation of Role of Gut Microbiome in Malnutrition

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Washington University School of Medicine researchers and their collaborators are embarking on a three year, $5.5 million dollar project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to investigate whether gut microbes contribute to severe malnutrition.

The researchers plan to look at whether infants in Malawi and Bangladesh who suffer from severe malnutrition harbor different intestinal microbes than healthy infants in the same areas. The team will focus on 6-month to two-year-old sets of fraternal and identical twins in which one or both twins is severely malnourished, comparing their intestinal microbes with those found in the guts of healthy twins.

The researchers also plan to provide the malnourished infants with nutritionally enriched food supplements and monitor whether their gut microbial species change before, during, or after this treatment. In addition, by looking at the gut microbes carried by the infants' mothers, the researchers hope to get new clues about how these bugs are transmitted.

Severe malnutrition — an important health issue in Malawi, Bangladesh, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia — is linked to extreme poverty and often considered a consequence of inadequate food supplies.

But new research suggests severe malnutrition is more complicated and involves additional genetic and other factors. For instance, within the same family, malnutrition may only affect one of several children living in the same household and eating similar diets.

Washington University microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon, director of the institute's Center for Genome Sciences, is leading the project. Also collaborating on the study are Washington University pediatrician Mark Manary, who has been studying malnutrition in children in Malawi for more than 20 years, and researchers from the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Gordon and his team previously found a link between gut microbes and weight, demonstrating in mice and humans that gut microbial communities contribute to obesity risk. For the new study, the researchers are testing their hypothesis that there is interplay between the gut microbiome and diet, infection and malnutrition.

"This work is designed to understand the complex interplay among a child's diet and his or her gut microbial community, immune system, and human genome in the development of the most severe forms of malnutrition, kwashiorkor and marasmus," Gordon said in a statement. "Investigating how gut microbes contribute to malnutrition could provide a framework for developing effective ways to treat and prevent these devastating diseases."

In addition, Washington University said that its scientists intend to collaborate with University of Virginia researchers investigating the role of human genetics in malnutrition.

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